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“…’s charming. Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying. You wouldn’t be the first young person to fall prey.”

Feri rounded the corner to find the costume designer critically tugging at the fit of one of the new ensemble member’s jackets. What was his name—Bence? Béla? Terrified-looking lad, staring at Feri like a wide-eyed woodland creature.

“Boo,” Feri said to him, baring his teeth, and then to the designer: “How much longer will this nonsense take?”

It was not his problem, he told himself, if the costume designer was spreading scurrilous rumors about Borika in revenge for Borika spreading scurrilous rumors about the designer. Borika’s days of seducing young ensemble members were long past, anyway, as Zsuzsika reminded her regularly, usually while adding a little dig about aiming too low. Zsuzsika, of course, would never have given the time of day to a fellow not billed in the top six lines. Feri shuddered, remembering the last mediation; no, he wasn’t going to let this be his problem.

“…only nineteen! And he’s forty-five if he’s a day.” Borika’s voice carried further than she realized, and Feri skidded to a stop outside the canteen. She was obviously talking about him, although he couldn’t imagine why. Nineteen? Was she talking about Imola? No one had seen that, and Imola and Ákos were even more sickening together than they’d been before.

“I’m sure it’s nothing like that,” said Marika. “A misunderstanding. You know how the rumors around here are—why, the other day, I heard that Kárló and I were back together, and you know I wouldn’t take that—”

“I’m only saying it’s suspicious,” said Borika darkly. “Maybe there’s a reason his marriages all failed.”

That was his cue. Feri swept into the canteen—Béri Balogh Ádám’s arrival in camp—and said, “Yes, Borika. I believe my ex-wives all agree, for once, that the reason was me.”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Ottó informed him, sitting down and promptly stealing half of Feri’s sandwich. “Nineteen!”

That was it. Ottó’s last girlfriend had been a twenty-three-year-old dancer, and he was older than Feri. “You are a shameless hypocrite,” Feri replied, grabbing his sandwich back, “or you would be if I had the foggiest idea what you and everyone else have been blathering around behind my back for the last week. Who’s nineteen? What am I supposed to have done with this nineteen-year-old whose virtue everyone is so concerned about? Do any of the children in this cast even still have virtue to be concerned about?” Annoyance thus expressed, he took a bite of his sandwich—paprika and salami—which he nearly choked on when Ottó answered.

“Don’t play coy, you old ram. Borika saw you last week in the rehearsal room after hours, with Peti.”

Thirty seconds of coughing later, Feri managed to gasp, “Peti? Everyone thinks I’m screwing Peti?

“Well, if you’re stroking his face and making eyes at him, what are people supposed to think?”

Feri’s career had been plagued by rumors for many years, of varying degrees of truth, but this was even more ridiculous than the time that muckracker from Bors Online had speculated that the reason Feri always went solo to premieres was because he was secretly involved with Ottó. “Ottó,” Feri said as he set aside his sandwich and laid his hands on Ottó’s shoulders, “what do people usually do in rehearsal rooms?”

A week earlier:

“Thank you so much for agreeing to help me prepare for the audition, maestro,” Peti said, shuffling through the script he’d brought with him. “This is the scene they’ve requested. I don’t really understand Zsolt’s motivations here.”

“Stop fidgeting and give me that,” Feri snapped. Peti, at least, could be motivated to something resembling professionalism with the prospect of a paycheck, but that didn’t mean Feri wanted to spend his entire evening on this nonsense when he had a bottle of wine at home calling his name. “What is this play you’re auditioning for, anyway?”

“Uh, it’s a stage adaptation of a movie from a few years ago. It’s about—”

Half-listening to Peti’s confused plot summary, Feri skimmed the text of the scene. Peti must be trying out for the role of this kid Zsolt, and Tibor seemed to be some kind of writer. Blah, blah, repression, blah blah, mid-life crisis.

ZSOLT: Tell me, am I the first?

TIBOR: The first what?

ZSOLT: The first boy.

TIBOR: The very first.

ZSOLT: You lie. First-timers are much more embarrassed.

Tedious art film trash—did the world really need more plays about semi-successful middle-aged artists discovering themselves as their lives spiraled into despair? But Feri remembered being Peti’s age, just starting out as an actor even though he knew what he really wanted to do was direct. An audition was an audition.

“Na! Let’s get this over with, then.”

Peti was reading over his script again at lunch in the university canteen, absently eating a plate of something optimistically labeled 'delicious sea fish' and rice. The Maestro's help had been invaluable, if a little awkwardly handsy, but he wanted to be sure he was completely prepared for the audition on Friday. His first real, professional role, if he got it.

"Mind if we join you?" Ákos was already sliding in across from him before he could even nod, and Imola appeared next to him.

"Peti." She bit her lip, frowning a little. "You know you can talk to us, right?"

"Huh? Yes, of course."

"Is there...anything you want to talk about?" Ákos looked weirdly uncomfortable, but Peti supposed that was probably just the sprained wrist. Ákos had been injuring himself a lot lately, poor guy.

Peti tucked his script back in his bag, since he obviously wouldn't be doing any more studying. "No?"

"You've just been wearing a lot of scarves lately." Imola laid a hand on his. "It's look."

Adrift in a sea of conversation without a GPS, Peti settled for a shrug. "It's drafty in here and I have an audition on Friday. I don't want to get sick."

"I'm just saying we're here for you."

"We won't judge," added Ákos. "Even if it is a little weird."

"Not that weird," said Imola, who was blushing for some reason.

"...okay," said Peti, deciding not to ask. "Hey, are you going to finish that salad?"